‘I lived in Bohemia, and Bohemia is a tolerant place.’
My daughter and I share a love for David Hockney, so on Tuesday evening we joined those attending cinemas across the country for first screening of the feature-length documentary about the artist, to be followed by a Q&A with Hockney live from his Los Angeles home.
It’s a superb film, directed by Randall Wright, who also made the excellent Lucian Freud: Painted Life and David Hockney: Secret Knowledge for the BBC. Intimate and affectionate, Hockney‘s emotional punch comes from the artist having, for the first time, given access to his personal video and photo library. Like today’s selfie and Instagram devotees, but decades earlier, Hockney assiduously documented his own life on film, starting with the house he grew up in in Bradford, to his new life as a blond in the Mediterranean sunlight of southern California, where he found the space and colour he transmuted into iconic paintings.
Hockney with his parents in Bradford, 1962
Hockney has given Randall Wright the run of his home movies and photographs – from home movies shot in the post-war Bradford terrace where his dad advised him, ‘Don’t worry about what the neighbours think,’ to glimpses of swinging sixties London where, at the Royal College of Art, he shaped his personal image – bleached blond hair, owlish glasses, and trendy clothes – and then on to Hollywood, the swimming pools, the surfers, and the gay life.
‘I grew up in Bradford and Hollywood,’ Hockney says at one point, talking about to his childhood love of ‘the pictures’ that imprinted in his mind an image of America as a land of sunlight, adventure and limitless horizons. It was there that, though he didn’t drive, he bought his first car, went blond (after seeing an advert on TV one night for Clairol which asserted, ‘blondes have more fun’).
Hockney: a blond in Santa Monica, 1964
The privilege intimacy of Hockney’s home movies and photo albums are only part of what makes this film such a warm and uplifting experience; it’s also the clips from interviews with Hockney – from the present, winding back through the past – with their quintessential Hockney observations on life, art and friendship. Hockney’s friendships, and his love for his family are a central thread woven into the tapestry of this film. There is much laughter as a host of friends share anecdotes about the painter, while Hockney’s reflections on the devastating losses inflicted on his friends by AIDS forms one of the film’s most deeply moving passages.
Hockney: those glasses
The glimpses of Hockney’s early days in London and his odyssey to America – New York first, then Los Angeles – are a reminder of just how attractive, how cool, a figure he was, with his blond hair, boyish charm and his quirky personality. Since his teens, America had been a kind of fantasy for Hockney – vibrant, rich, unstuffy and full of good-looking young men. California, with its sunshine, blue skies and relaxed gay scene was central to this dream of a place far removed from the dull skies and prudery of Bradford and England at the time.
During his first visit in 1961 he found, to his delight, that his romantic fantasy was in fact a reality. The film makes apparent how Los Angeles (because of its topography and the fact that everyone drove everywhere) offered him privacy as well as deep friendship. It was a place outside the art world. (in the Q&A after, he remarked that he lived, not in the art world, but in his own world) and beyond the constraints of English class and sexual prejudices.
Los Angeles, 1964: the car he bought the day he passed his driving test
In the film, Hockney recounts the amusing memory of how he arrived in Los Angeles unable to drive. He decided to buy a bike so that he could visit Pershing Square, a location that had featured in a novel he had read. In sprawling LA, it turned out to be an 18-mile cycle ride, and when he got there it was deserted. He realised he would have to get a car, and tells how, in one day, he acquired Ford Falcon, took the driving theory test, and then passed the practical driving test, having barely driven the car.
Hockney, American Collectors, 1968
In this shimmering world of brilliant light and rich, creative people, Hockney began to experiment. The light playing off the surface of a swimming pool, individuals posed like totems in surroundings flattened by the bright California light. A paintings such as American Collectors had the cool, detached mood of a thriller. One of several double portraits of friends and associates from this period, the painting depicts the contemporary-art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman in the sculpture garden of their Los Angeles home. The couple (who were not among Hockney’s circle of close friends) stand as stiff and still as the objects surrounding them apart, her smile seeming to mirror the toothy grimace of the totem pole behind her. It makes me think of The Graduate, directed the previous year by Mike Nichols (who died last week).
Hockney and Peter Schlesinger
We see how his paintings at that time reflected his developing sexual identity. These are the paintings in which he returns repeatedly to shimmering blue swimming pools and portraits of men naked, especially of Peter Schlesinger, his first intense relationship which, when it ended, nearly broke him. He moved in glamorous circles, meeting rich and famous people, including Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, whose double portrait he painted.
Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968
Hockney’s painting speaks vividly of the place where he now found himself – a world away from the England he had left behind (there’s a wonderful sequence in the film that reinforces this, when Wright cuts from sunny California to the drizzly streets of Bradford and London). Here is the iconic novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior, living as openly gay couple. The minimal details include the two piles of books which denote their shared intellectual pursuits, and the eroticised bowl of fruit and corncob. Bachardy is still alive; I recall that he made a cameo appearance a decade ago in the film A Single Man, based on Isherwood’s novel of the same name.
Hockney, Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966
One entertaining aspect of the film is the way in which Wright animates certain works as people portrayed in them appear in the same poses and in the same location as the original, and speak of the circumstances surrounding the painting. For example, the painting Beverly Hills Housewife comes to life with its subject, philanthropist Betty Freeman, talking about the circumstances of its creation, while George Lawson and his then-lover, the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep, restage Hockney’s unfinished painting of them which the artist worked on between 1972 and 1975.
George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, 1972-75
Sleep and Lawson return to the flat depicted in the painting, and recall the experience of sitting for Hockney. ‘I was playing ‘A Flat’,’ says Lawson, referring to the clavichord he sits at in the painting. ‘And I wanted to call the painting ‘A Flat. But it was really a painting about stillness.’ Sleep reveals how he secretly suspected the painting would never be finished, due to Hockney’s perfectionism: ‘Every time we went round there, there was something different going on, and I just thought, ‘This will never get finished”.
Hockney, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool,1966
A remarkable and enjoyable feature of the film is its ability, in high-definition, to pan across the details of a painting, just as you would as a viewer in a gallery. The close up views of a canvas are quite astonishing in their clarity. One section of the film is devoted to examining the evolving ways in which Hockney solved the problem of depicting the constantly changing surface of water – from the moving water in Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool to the intricate brushwork (which, he says, took him around two weeks) of A Bigger Splash.
It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.
Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967
Randall Wright has preserved a fine balance between glimpses of Hockney’s personal life and discussion of his artistic development. The film explores how Hockney has been constantly intrigued by the potential of new technologies (such as the fax machine and the iPad) and has embraced a variety of artistic techniques and fields of work. We see him at work, for example, on the ‘paper pools’, made in 1978 after Hockney had been introduced to Kenneth Tyler, a New York printmaker who had perfected a unique, water-based paper pulp technique that combined painting and printmaking. Encouraged to try it, Hockney embraced the process enthusiastically. He liked its pulpy tactile surface texture and irregular outlines which offered a change from the flat, regular areas of colour given by the acrylic paints he had used in the swimming pool paintings.
Hockney, Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978
Further sequences deal with Hockney’s set designs for operas, multi-screen video experiments, and the works created on his iPhone and iPad. He talks passionately about how art will always be for him a non-photographic way of seeing the world, a means of capturing a wider picture, more akin to the way we see the world through our own eyes. There’s a moment, watching on a cinema widescreen in high definition, when you really understand what he means . It’s when we see the monumental, 24-foot long A Bigger Grand Canyon from 1998.
Hockney had photographed the Grand Canyon in 1982. He said that he wanted ‘to photograph the unphotographable’:
Which is to say, space … There is no question … that the thrill of standing on that rim of the Grand Canyon is spatial. It is the biggest space you can look out over that has an edge.
Hockney’s solution in 1982 was to take a series of photographs which, with their multiple vanishing points, he placed together as the collage, one of several such photo-collages that he made at the time.
For Hockney, the problem with photography was that the composition was a single, ‘tunnel’ view. His decision to make photo-collages followed a Cubist idea:
When you put one piece of paper on top of another… you put two pieces of time together, and therefore make a space. I thought I was making time, then you realise you’re making space… Then you realise time and space are the same thing.
In the summer of 1997, Hockney made two road trips from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back, calling again at the Grand Canyon. In the film he says:
I’d been contemplating some sort of big landscape of the West. Big spaces: that’s what was getting into my head. I was experiencing a growing claustrophobia … longing for big spaces.
Hockney ‘A Bigger Grand Canyon’, 1998
Returning home to Los Angeles, Hockney prepared to paint it. He made two painted studies, the second comprising fifteen canvases. The panoramic oil painting, A Bigger Grand Canyon was the culmination of this process of working out his response an artistic challenge: how to depict space and the experience of being within a space, or travelling through a space, over time. Discussing works like this, Hockney refers to the lessons of Cubism, where a subject is depicted with multiple viewpoints, and insights he gained from studying Chinese scroll painting where different time sequences, different elements of a cityscape or landscape form an apparent whole. The same ideas had been applied in Hockney’s set designs for operatic productions.
Hockney, Street-lamps, Bridlington, iPad painting, 2011
Despite the fascination with technologies and his early pop art associations, the film reveals how Hockney was initially regarded as unfashionable, with his advocacy of drawing, commitment to traditional print and etching techniques, and rejection in his own work of abstraction. Yet he has remained immensely popular and retains a delight in new tricks, such as the Brushes app for the iPad, whose technology allows us to rewind his brush strokes and watch the creative process unfold for ourselves.
Hockney painting in Los Angeles, 1964
But if there is one constant thread that runs through this film it is friendship. It reveals how crucial family and friends have been for Hockney throughout his life. Some of them appear in the film – his sister, Margaret (who actually got him started on a computer); his art dealer, John Kasmin, who discovered him in the sixties; and Celia Birtwell, the designer, and subject of perhaps Hockney’s most famous portrait with her husband Ossy Clark and a white cat. The intensity of his relationships is revealed most clearly in the sequences that concern that with Peter Schlesinger, and his long and supportive friendship with the art historian and curator, Henry Geldzahler. In his introduction to my copy of Marco Livingstone’s 1976 David Hockney by David Hockney (in a passage I find has been asterisked by my daughter when reading for her degree ), Geldzahler writes:
Hockney’s photo albums reveal his romanticism and sentimentality about people and places. His friends are photographed again and again. … If art and life can be separated for a moment to allow for the making of a point, they refer more to Hockney’s life than to his art.
Smoking: Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and David Goodman (photo by Dennis Hopper)
In a recent online interview, it was put to director Randall Wright that there was something of the holiday about David Hockney: that, despite personal loss, he sees the world with holiday eyes, as if for the first time. Having just seen the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy – in the same galleries where I’d seen Hockney’s vibrant ‘Bigger Picture’ paintings – this question interested me. This was Wright’s response:
Optimism is a decision. You can decide what you’re going to do with the experiences you have, and you can wallow in the obscenity of human behaviour, or you can believe that ‘life is a gift.’ That was David’s mother’s phrase. We’re given opportunities within this life and you can see it with holiday eyes or not. David isn’t telling us to look at how successful, practical and wealthy a life he is living – he’s getting us to look at what is free in life. The way to get a grip on the world is to go out and see what the world is doing for us, to step out of the angst. That’s the moment you calm down and learn something. That’s the moment where it’s crucial to accept and act on it, to forget yourself and actually look. It’s a way of life. And it’s in a visual looking for David, but it can be a different investigation for anyone, being free and asking questions and having faith that you can do anything. And not in the sense that we can ‘all be rich.’ David’s message is that you can decide to enrich your life. It’s all there for you. It’s that idea that lies behind the film.
Hockney and Kiefer: two different outlooks on the world. We need both.
David Hockney at home in the Hollywood Hills. He returned to LA last year.
At the end of Wright’s film, Hockney wanders out of his studio in the hills above Los Angeles to the garden and swimming pool. It’s a miniature world with the palms and the swimming pool of his 1970s paintings, in which the bricks and railings are painted in brilliant Mondrian colours. As he pauses by the pool, staring thoughtfully at the hills, the commentary suggests that he is still searching.
David Hockney, ‘The Group XIII, 4-9 August, 2014
The Q&A that followed the film was disappointing. The conversation was conducted by an American who, though he was clearly on good terms with Hockney, appeared awkward and ill at ease. He allowed Hockney to repeat himself, and his questions were not particularly incisive. Though Picturehouse cinemas usually invite film-goers to submit questions for these events, only two were eventually put to Hockney.
However, the conversation but did reveal what Hockney’s currently working on at present – portraits of card players and other works that ‘reverse perspective’. This is the new bee in H’s bonnet, though I’m not sure how original his thoughts are. His new group paintings seem to be another way of resolving the dissatisfaction he has long felt with traditional single-point perspective. This, Hockney argues, is untrue to the way human beings see. ‘When my eye moves, the perspective alters according to the way I’m looking, so it’s constantly changing; in real life when you are looking at five people there are a thousand perspectives.’
At the start of the film Hockney is asked, ‘Why are you popular?’ He replies:
I’m interested in ways of looking and trying to think of it in simple ways. If you can communicate that of course people will respond, after all everybody does look. The question is, how hard.
The film is in cinemas now, and will be shown on BBC TV in 2015.
After a dismissive and superficial review by the Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw, there’s a much better piece by Jonathan Jones here.